JOHN Major should consider his visit a qualified success. Qualified because he stopped far short of recognising the full extent of Britain's moral obligations towards the citizens of Hong Kong. But a success because, just for once, a visiting minister did not fail to live up to expectations. Indeed, he exceeded them. Both on nationality issues, where his concessions went much further than expected, and on Britain's post-1997 obligations to the territory, Mr Major struck an impressive tone. Duty After the trade-obsessed approach of Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, whose evasiveness so angered legislators during their recent visit to London, it was refreshing to hear yesterday's pledge that Britain 'would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us' if the Joint Declaration is broken. That is valuable. Not because it is likely to prove necessary. A reference to the World Court remains a remote prospect, especially given the more conciliatory tone of mainland officials in recent months. Its importance lies in the reassurance such a pledge provides that, in the unlikely event things did go wrong after the handover, Britain would not wash its hands of the problem. As Mr Major reminded his business audience during yesterday's luncheon speech, there is much they can do to help avoid such a doomsday scenario. The list of freedoms he recited, from a fair and transparent legal process to the free flow of market-sensitive information, are too often taken for granted. So Mr Major was right to note how vital these are to Hong Kong's survival as an international business centre. Those whose views are respected in Beijing would do the community a service if they reminded Chinese leaders of this on every possible occasion. On nationality, the granting of visa-free access was expected. However much hardliners in London fought against this, the risk of retaliation against British nationals in Hong Kong made it impossible to reject such a step. But the granting of UK passports to war widows was a welcome surprise. The tardiness of this concession can be justly criticised, as can the fact it will still be left to a private members' bill to implement. Nonetheless it represents a major U-turn on an issue where the Home Office has, for nearly a decade, shamelessly refused to give any ground. That can only have come about because of direct Prime Ministerial intervention. For this, Mr Major is to be congratulated. Unfortunately, he still refuses to recognise London's parallel obligation to Hong Kong's ethnic minorities. There may still be no passports for these people, but in offering them a 'cast-iron guarantee' that any forced to leave Hong Kong can settle in Britain, an improvement on previous vaguer pledges, Mr Major has moved a step in the right direction. He has also tacitly admitted that the issue remains unresolved, and so opened the door to renewed pressure for further concessions. Goal Governor Chris Patten, whose lobbying in London can be credited with helping bring about yesterday's good news, must take advantage of this. His goal should remain UK passports for all who otherwise risk becoming stateless. But, as an immediate next step, he could take up Mr Major's offer to consider giving detailed criteria under which this pledge can be invoked, and insist on these being set out in writing to all those potentially affected. Hong Kong's expectations of Britain tend to be justifiably low at this late stage in the transition. Most visiting ministers only tend to reinforce this impression. So Mr Major can feel satisfied that his visit has proved a rare exception to the rule. Instead of prompting expectations to sink still further, he has rekindled some faith that Britain will not entirely forget the territory after the handover.